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NOAA-Sponsored Programs Partner to Study Storm Impacts

Mar 7, 2018 | Delaware, Prepared Communities

Satellite image of Hurricane Matthew’s eye as it hits the Carolina Coast in 2014. Image Courtesy of NOAA.
Downed power lines, flooding, damaged buildings, debris—some impacts of major storms are easier to spot. Others, like changes in water salinity that impact local fisheries, not so much. Not knowing where such changes occur, or how long they linger, is a perennial challenge for coastal decision makers. To address this gap, two NOAA-sponsored monitoring networks are joining forces: the NERRS System-Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP) and the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS).

“Both networks collect data that can be used to track storm signals,” says Dr. Kari St.Laurent, the research coordinator at the Delaware Reserve. “NERRS data tends to come from nearshore and upstream areas, while IOOS network data is collected further offshore.”

By putting these data sets together, she explains, you can paint a picture of a hurricane and its more subtle impacts in near real-time as the storm moves along the coast and into the watershed.

St.Laurent is part of a team that piloted the integration of NERRS and IOOS data to track salinity changes along the East Coast that resulted from Hurricanes Joaquin in 2015 and Matthew in 2016. They found that, depending on the location, the changes persisted for a week to more than a month after the storm had passed. To make their results more accessible, the team used visualizations and data mapping to show the magnitude and duration of each storm’s impact.

“Localized changes in salinity can persist at different timescales and magnitudes depending on a storm’s track and the interplay of near-shore and offshore factors like runoff and storm surge,” says St.Laurent. “Being able to visualize this is a potentially powerful tool for managers of fisheries that are sensitive to salinity. If you have a critter with a strict salinity threshold, like an oyster, this information would give you insight, maybe even the ability for real-time forecasting, to support management of the fishery in the storm’s wake.”

Salinity Changes During and After Hurricane Matthew, 2016
By forming an extended network of monitoring stations collecting data over large geographic areas, NERRS and IOOS have the potential to accelerate understanding of the science around a range of storm impacts and their drivers. This capacity is enhanced by NERRS uniform data collection protocols, which are used on 280 stations that track local water quality, nutrient pollution, and weather around the country. These platforms collect data every 15 minutes, generating approximately 42 million data points each year that can be used to provide a context for the analysis of hazardous spills, storm damage, and much more.

For example, when compared with NERRS pre and post storm data, an analyses of storm impacts could inform predictive models that could help coastal emergency responders anticipate and prepare for coming storms.

“A week before Matthew hit,” St. Laurent observes, “we had a big storm in Delaware and the soils were saturated. If you were just looking at Matthew, you might be mislead; it was actually a compounding effect. The data that NERRS and IOOS collects on a regular basis provides a baseline to help us understand tipping points and how you plan for the worst of the worst.”

The data, as she points out, is already there. It’s a matter of connecting the dots across data sets and organizations so scientists and graduate students can identify questions—and conduct analyses—that are relevant to management needs.

“Right now, we are trying to better integrate our data to look at biodiversity and bring coastal managers into the conversation,” she says, “but there are many ways to use this data. There are so many questions to be asked, hypothesized, and tested. It really presents a golden opportunity for graduate students and for those of us who are interested in focusing the next generation of scientists on coastal problems.”

NERRS monitoring stations like this one in Delaware collect continuous data in habitats ranging from the nearshore to far into the watershed.
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